Monday, November 28, 2016

Fidel Castro and Other Dictators

Fidel Castro is dead, and leaders around the world are making statements about his life and legacy.  Perhaps one of the most generous encomiums came from Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau.  It included the following:

Fidel Castro was a larger than life leader who served his people for almost half a century. A legendary revolutionary and orator, Mr. Castro made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation.
While a controversial figure, both Mr. Castro’s supporters and detractors recognized his tremendous dedication and love for the Cuban people who had a deep and lasting affection for “el Comandante”.
I know my father was very proud to call him a friend and I had the opportunity to meet Fidel when my father passed away. It was also a real honour to meet his three sons and his brother President Raúl Castro during my recent visit to Cuba.

For this statement he was roundly condemned, both within Canada and in the wilder world.  For example the right of centre Canadian periodical Macleans claimed:

"By the early hours of Saturday morning, Havana time, Trudeau was an international laughingstock. Canada’s “brand,” so carefully constructed in Vogue photo essays and Economist magazine cover features, seemed to suddenly implode into a bonspiel of the vanities, with humiliating headlines streaming from the Washington Post to the Guardian, and from Huffington Post to USA Today."

To Trudeau's credit he didn't try to walk back the statement after the furore, but when asked directly by CBC journalist Catherine Cullen, "Was Castro a dictator?"  he paused, pursed his lips and said "Yes".

In many ways Justin Trudeau was following in his father's footsteps. Pierre Elliot Trudeau refused fall into step behnd the US in imposing sanctions on Cuba.  He visited Cuba several times and maintained a good personal rapport with Fidel, who attended Trudeau's funeral, to which son Justin refers in his statement.  Subsequent Canadian Liberal prime minister, Jean Chretien, also had a good personal relationship with Castro, and Canada has maintained a mutually beneficial relationship with Cuba.  Canadians comprise about half of the two million or so tourists who arrive in the island every year.   I recall waiting in the departure hall of the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, and seeing a plaque acknowledging Canadian assistance in building the facility and commemorating its opening jointly by Jean Chretien and Fidel Castro in 1998.

I must say I was somewhat surprised at the adverse reception Justin Trudeau's statement received in Canada.  It seemed a respectful and dignified acknowledgement of the former Cuban leader's passing.  But I suppose it illustrates how far to the right, public opinion has swung, since the 1970s when Trudeau pere first visited Cuba.  Criticism coming from the right was just as one might have expected, but I must admit that I was somewhat surprised when two of the three panelists on the Sunday Talk, on the CBC's The National strongly criticized him too. Jonathan Kay, editor of The Walrus, described Trudeau's comments as what one might expect from a campus radical, not the leader of a democratic country. When host Wendy Mesley pointed out that Canada  had publicly eulogized Saudi King Abdullah, whose country was a serious violator of human rights, Kay pointed out that, that was just diplomacy - Canada has an important economic relationship with Saudi Arabia, including selling weapons, but has no such relationship with Cuba.  It sounded a lot like hypocrisy to me.

So did the condemnations of Castro coming from the usual blowhards on the US right.  Donald Trump's condemnation of Castro was widely publicized (as was the measured response of President Obama).  But Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio (both of part Cuban ancestry) also weighed in criticizing both Castro and Justin Trudeau.  Of course the criticism was about political repression in Castro's Cuba, and the detention of political opponents.  But it seems to me there is a glaring double standard which could be summarized as:

"Left Wing Dictators Bad (very very bad!); Right Wing Dictators Good (or at least good enough for us to support them)."  

How many dictators has the US supported, since 1959 when Castro seized power in the Cuban Revolution?  I went to Wikipedia to see if i could get an answer to this.  Wikipedia lists 22 "authoritarian" regimes (presumably non-democratic) currently being supported. Since 1959 the USA has supported authoritarian regimes in 42 countries. They range from Latin American dictatorships:

  1. Rafael Trujillo  - Dominican Republic (1930-1961)
  2. Ephraim Rios Montt and other juntas - Guatemala (1954-19860
  3. Oswaldo Lopez Arellano - Honduras (1963-1982)
  4. Hugo Banzer - Bolivia (1971-1978)
  5. Various Argentine military leaders (1976-1983)
  6. Various Brazilian military leaders (1964-1985)
  7. Various Uruguayan civil-military dictatorships (1973-1985)
  8. Somoza family - Nicaragua (1936-1979)
  9. Francois Duvalier and Jean-Claude Duvalier - Haiti (1957-1986)
  10. Omar Torrijos and Manuel Noriega - Panama (1968-1989)
  11. Alfredo Stroessner - Paraguay (1954-1989)
  12. Augusto Pinochet - Chile (1973-1990)
  13. Alberto Fujimoro - Peru (1992-2000);
to Asian dictatorships in South Korea, Pakistan, South Vietnam, Cambodia, Iran (the Shah), Philippines, Iraq (the Arifs), Indonesia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Yemen;

and numerous African dictatorships.  There are also some European ones - Spain until Franco died in 1975, Portugal until the demise of Salazar in 1974, Greece under the Colonels (1980-1989) and military rule in Turkey (1980-1989).

Currently the US supports the military dictatorship in Egypt and the one-family rule in Saudi Arabia. 

Some of these dictatorships were very, very nasty.  Chile and Argentina under military rule imprisoned and murdered on an almost industrial scale.  The current regime in Eygpt is estimated to be holding 60,000 political prisoners - it was even trying its opponents in batches of hundreds and sentencing them to death or long terms in prison in trials that lasted just a few hours.  

And then of course there is the Saudi regime, which executes people for blasphemy; or for posting things critical of the regime on the internet; or simply for being a leader of the country's Shia minority - the mullah, Nimr al Nimra, was beheaded on New Year's Day along with 46 others either shot or beheaded.  

But all of these dictators are OK.  They may be sonofabitches but they're our sonaofabitches!  

Either the likes of Trump, Rubio, Cruz and even Rona Ambrose, who have ben braying about Castro's tyranny, have no knowledge of history and little sense of irony, or they have been brainwashed by their own rhetoric. I have no respect for any of them 

Fidel Castro was a dictator, no doubt about it.  He did not allow free speech and he imprisoned many political opponents.  But, as Justin Trudeau mentioned he did bring about some positive changes for his country.  The achievements in health and education are especially noteworthy.  Cuba has an excellent, free health system, and now boasts a considerably lower infant mortality rate than the USA - marginally lower than Canada's.  It has free public education, and now over 99% of the population are literate.  The crime rate in Cuba is very low - something one cannot say about almost every other country in Latin America.  

I visited Cuba in 2012.  Of course it is always difficult for outsiders to judge a country on just a short visit. But having some command of Spanish helps, and we were able to speak with a number of people - and not just taxi drivers.  

There were those who chafed against the restrictions they faced, and others who were extremely grateful for what the regime had done. 

By and large, the former were educated people (beneficiaries of the impressive education system), while the latter were poorer people. I remember one old lady telling my wife that her mother had born a dozen children, of whom only three or four survived, while she herself had six healthy grandchildren. She was very happy with what the Revolution had brought. But then there was a museum docent, who had a law degree, but could not find a job practicing law. And another, who was a very well informed about maritime history who, after looking around to see who might be listening, railed about the way information was controlled - the internet and most foreign publications are not available to most Cubans.  And then there was a young doctor with whom we started chatting, when our bus was delayed for some mechanical problem.  He told us how little he was paid (much less than what a taxi driver earned in a tourist area), and how he could not leave the country, unless it was on a government sponsored mission - for example to Venezuela.  But he was not complaining.  He seemed to appreciate the fact that he had benefitted in getting medical training.  

I think the biggest problem for Cuba is that its economy is so poor and basic. It is only a small country, which relies on tourism and agriculture - exporting sugar and tobacco etc. The US embargo hasn't helped. Apparently Cuba has a nascent bio-pharmaceutical industry, but it can't export any product because of the embargo.  Because of the lack of an industrial base, there are just not enough jobs for people who have benefitted from the education system. 

Judging Cuba really boils down to a question of Social Justice vs. Democratic Freedom. I doubt if the Cuban Revolution would have survived if it had been fully democratic from the start.  There were just too many powerful interests, both within and outside the country, who wanted to strangle it at birth. 

But the choice of social justice or democratic freedom is a difficult one. In judging the success of Cuba's revolution I think it is best to compare Cuba with other Latin American countries.  

I have seen something of other countries in the hemisphere - I lived  a year in each of Jamaica and Colombia, spent 3 months in Guatemala learning Spanish and have visited Mexico, Peru and Ecuador.

All of these, for poorer people, score much worse than Cuba on quality of life. And all have a perennial problem with crime and violence. But on the other hand they have (especially Mexico and Colombia) a well-developed middle class, and freedom of information and movement.

Where would I prefer to live? If I were poor probably in Cuba (although life is hard there). But if I were a bit better off, probably not in Cuba.

I think that now is the time for Cuba to open up, to allow more freedom of information and freedom of expression.  There is now a fully literate population, and basic needs in terms of food and medical care are met.  Its economy will not improve or develop unless it is more open to the outside world.  Some of the achievements of the Revolution have been formidable and the Cuban people have a lot to lose.  

A transition to allow freedom of movement will not be easy - the temptations, for example, for trained medical personnel to make the short journey to the American mainland would be enormous.   And letting back in the Cuban diaspora en masse could be disastrous - their loathing of the Revolution is absolute.   So any transition, will, I think, have to be carefully managed.

Fidel Castro's legacy is a controversial one.  He was a dictator and freedom was and still is limited in Cuba.   But Castro was hardly a tyrant.  Compared with some of the US-backed dictators listed above, he doesn't seem so very bad.  And to offset this the Cuba he leaves is, for multitudes, a much better place than it was under the former (US-backed!) dictator Fulgencio Batista.  As Justin Trudeau pointed out, the Cuban people have achieved a lot under Fidel's leadership.   Whither they go now is an open question.  

Will people be saying that the Revolution is over, when a new Trump hotel appears on the Malecon? Or will a new generation manage to lead Cuba forward to a better future?  Whatever transpires I hope that at least some of the achievements of the Revolution survive.  



  1. He was a tryrant:

  2. Good article/blog. I lived in Guatemala for a year (I speak fluent Spanish which, as you said, helps) and travelled all over central America meeting numerous Cuban 'exiles'(mainly in Mexico and Costa Rica) who were clearly healthier and better - educated than most in the host countries. They liked to complain about Fidel but disliked it when non Cubans did so... One told me that Fidel was a tyrant 'but he was OUR tyrant...' My brother in law of 20 years is Cuban too - he claims a half-hearted anti-Castro-ism but mostly just makes the most of his rich cultural and educational heritage; that of Fidel's Revolutionary Cuba.